Critics.- Sam Marlowe

Sam Marlowe – The Stage London Theatre Critic

Selected reviews by Sam Marlowe, the lead theatre critic for The Stage.

Sam Marlowe is an arts and theatre journalist based in London.

She has written for and contributed to i News, The Times, Metro, The Independent, Time Out, The Stage, The Chicago Tribune, and theartsdesk.com. She started her journalism career writing for What’s On In London, eventually becoming theatre editor at What’s On.Her radio and television appearances include BBC Radio 4’s Front Row and Sky News.

Sam studied at the University of East Anglia, and went on to train as a musicals theatre actor at Mountview drama school in London.

Sam serves on judging panels for The Stage Debut Awards, the UK Theatre Awards and the Evening Standard Awards (Most Promising Playwright category).

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The Clinic (2022)

★★★

"Wild, witty and shocking"

"Gripping and original drama of family tension, activism and mental heath crisis"

"Now, this is a trip. Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s drama is so crammed with switchback plot twists, stylistic jolts and jump-cut focus shifts that it’s like watching six plays at once – every one of them absorbing. What initially appears to be a story of generational tensions and sibling rivalry in a high-achieving British-Nigerian family, morphs into something far more fantastical by way of debates about political activism, institutional racism, mental health crisis and identity"

"the play is highly-charged: there are complex ideas here about class, compromise and responsibility; about the cost of success for Black people, and its fragility even after it has been hard-won. At times, it’s more dazzle than clarity. Yet Touko handles its glittering invention as a sleight-of-hand conjurer, from the richly entertaining snipe and swipe of family dispute to the almost Jordan Peele-ish blend of satire and the uncanny"

The Stage
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Antigone (2022)

★★★

"Vivid"

"Uneven urban reworking of the classical tragedy is energised by eloquent movement and vivid poetry"

"The writing features flashes of typically glorious poetry – musical, vivid, zig-zagging its way straight to the heart like lightning – but also chunks of faintly toe-curling dialogue, cluttered with unwieldy polemic."

"Hasan is a charismatic Antigone, her voice ragged with emotion, her face ablaze. Jayawardena convincingly suggests a ruler toughened by struggle – his ruthless pragmatism the end result of enduring too many moral compromises in order to survive and thrive among Islamophobia, racism and white privilege. But the contemporary relevance is so vigorously and insistently overstated that we lose sight of the story, and the play never achieves the raw, elemental power that tragedy demands."

The Stage
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Silence (2022)

★★★

"Crammed with vivid testimony"

"Urgent accounts of Indian partition demand a more focused dramatisation"

"It’s crammed with vivid testimony, and yet, in a restrained production by Abdul Shayek, it never quite achieves the impact or richness that its torrent of traumatic experiences demands."

"The play offers an insight into a shameful and under-discussed, bloody slab of British history, but the journalistic framing device is creaky, delivered in flat first-person, direct-address narration – a flimsy construct on which to hang subject matter of such immense weight."

The Stage
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I, Joan (2022)

★★★

"Lusty rallying cry for equality"

"I, Joan review“Lusty rallying cry for equality”

"Part queer fantasia, part protest march, part ecstatic dance-floor celebration, Charlie Josephine’s play reframing the legend of Joan of Arc as a story of non-binary heroism is a lusty rallying cry for love, pride, equality and acceptance."

" It is, at close to three hours, baggy and repetitive, and there are some audibility issues. Its polemic is more often blunt and declamatory than dramatically integrated. But its unruliness is a feature, not a bug, its defiance of structural and formal principles as much an intentional rejection of convention as Joan hacking off their long hair with a broad sword."

The Stage
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The Trials (2022)

★★★★

"... this new play by Dawn King – whose 2011 debut Foxfinder offered a similarly unsettling vision of authoritarianism and nature in revolt – pursues rage, injustice, social schism and vengeance to their annihilating endpoint."

"The middle-aged defendants – compellingly played by Nigel Lindsay, Lucy Cohu and Sharon Small – are pitilessly spotlit, delivering their mitigating statements before the youngsters and an imagined online audience. If they’re found guilty they will be sentenced to be publicly “euthanised”, a radical solution to the overpopulation problem."

"It’s a grotesquely vivid glimpse of apocalypse that gives horrifying shape to our worst nightmares."

i News
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Identical (2022)

★★★

"This new family musical dishes up a double helping of charm. "

"The ambitious production has its sights set on the West End: it’s directed, with bravura flourish and a shamelessly heavy finger on every available emotional button, by Trevor Nunn. It’s beguiling, but so meandering and tension-free that eventually its relentless niceness begins to grate."

"Without a convincing psychological grounding, or a stronger sense of damage done and emotional lessons learnt, the story feels like so much sentimental fluff. Efforts to add depth are half-hearted and garbled: an incongruous, overblown nightmare sequence in which an operatic Lewis-Dodson appears as a fairy-tale witch; and a superfluous romantic subplot involving a kindly doctor and Johan’s housekeeper."

"Stiles’s score includes sumptuous waltzes, lachrymose ballads, and – most affectingly – touching duets for Lottie and Lisa. It’s impossible not to warm to a show this sweet-natured; but if it’s sunny, it’s also slight."

i News
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The Tempest (2022)

★★★

"Inflatable lobsters and football anthems make for gimmicky Shakespeare"

"It’s vivid, cheerfully garish and never dull, but it’s also gimmicky. Ariel’s song of enchantment is a rendition of the football anthem Three Lions, crooned over a feast of fast food; the robes that Prospero leaves as bait for George Fouracres’ bullyish Stefano and Ralph Davis’s Trinculo are Harry Potter merch. All of that strips away the fantastical and brings the drama closer to us: it’s redolent of drunken Brits abroad, and of our colonial past."

"This is, though, a DayGlo romp, flimsy as a lilo, if just as buoyant."

The Times
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The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe (2022)

★★★

"It feels a little curious, in the middle of summer, to be watching a wintry tale that comes complete with an appearance from Father Christmas. But this brooding adaptation of CS Lewis’s much-loved, quasi-religious fantasy adventure casts its chilly spell in spite of the odd timing."

"Womack is imperiously nasty and seductively glamorous, and there’s a moment of glorious, awestruck dread when she levitates high over the stage in triumph, her gown billowing."

"The grotesque face-off at the Stone Table, with Aslan sacrificing himself to Womack and her army of demons, is properly nightmarish, a phantasmagoria set to an ominous thunder of drums. It’s a thrilling climax in a show that, at its best, makes a shivery family treat."

i News
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Millennials (2022)

★★★

"Angsty songs, rainbow bubbles and a giant avocado"

"this plotless collection of numbers feels rather aimless and generalised, and although Clay’s songs are catchy and well crafted, you can’t help feeling that Gen-Z pop experts on the wryly funny, sharp-eyed and angsty — Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo — are doing a more sophisticated job of covering similar territory."

"It’s all thoroughly likeable and guaranteed to leave you feeling better and brighter, however old you are."

The Times
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Patriots (2022)

★★★

"Tom Hollander is magnetic in Peter Morgan’s slick Russian oligarch drama"

"...his [Peter Morgan's] latest theatrical outing is predictably pacey and tartly entertaining. But despite a stylish production by Rupert Goold with a lead performance of genially ruthless charisma from Tom Hollander, it lacks texture and dimension: it’s a bright cartoon-strip in which the characters remain broad and flat."

i News
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The Seagull (2022)

★★★★★

"Emilia Clarke is dazzling in Jamie Lloyd’s brilliant reimagining"

"The Game of Thrones actor gives a fragile, almost childlike turn in a brutally beautiful production"

"a brutally beautiful reimagining: it’s as if he’s shot the Seagull we’ve seen so many times before clean out of the sky to land smack in the here and now."

i News
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The House of Shades (2022)

★★★★

"Anne-Marie Duff glitters with spite in gripping family drama"

"Steel’s writing is joltingly powerful, with its jagged confrontations, corrosive wit and dark, vivid poeticism. It’s also slippery and sprawling, and sometimes ideologically blunt – but the play’s engine is so fuelled by the blood and guts of life that it hardly seems to matter."

"Duff is wrenching, eyes glittering with terrible spite and desperate sadness. Riveting, too, are Kelly Gough and Michael Grady-Hall as the adult Agnes and Jack, ripping themselves and each other apart as their lives, loyalties and ideals diverge. This is gripping, gristly drama: a story of so-called ordinary people, made epic."

i News
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My Fair Lady (2022)

★★★

"Amara Okereke dazzles as Eliza Doolittle"

"Bartlett Sher’s production, a 2018 hit at New York’s Lincoln Centre, is pretty to look at. And in Amara Okereke, it has a dazzling Eliza Doolittle. But while the familiar score sounds as lush as ever, it’s all a bit bland."

i News
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Oklahoma! (2022)

★★★★

"A thrilling reinvention that swaps the twee for sex and danger"

"No corn-fed hokey here – this production is tense and freshly thrilling"

"Arthur Darvill’s guitar-twanging cowboy Curly, swaggering in crotch-enhancing fringed chaps, sings a bluegrass rendition of famous opener “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”, while sharp eyes under Stetsons and baseball caps look on."

"This is a raw refashioning both of a cherished show and American mythology: ingenious, and freshly thrilling."

i News
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Jerusalem (2022)

★★★★★

"Mark Rylance is unforgettable in a triumphant revival"

"The actor gives a mesmerising turn as he reprises his role as Johnny “Rooster” Byron alongside Mackenzie Crook"

"Rickson’s production beautifully blends every shimmer and shiver: betrayals and small acts of spite rip holes in the camaraderie, the cowardice and petty nastiness of disappointing, circumscribed lives."

"Butterworth’s play, rooted in England’s ancient past and reaching into its inglorious present, is steeped in myths. Well, here’s one you can believe in: this is rich, haunting theatre – and Rylance is, once again, unforgettable."

i News
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Prima Facie (2022)

★★★

"Jodie Comer blazes with fury in a patchy sexual assault drama"

"Suzie Miller’s play doesn’t offer much fresh perspective – but the Killing Eve star is utterly terrific"

"Miller – herself a former lawyer – doesn’t offer much fresh perspective, despite some harrowingly vivid detail; there’s none of the knotty complexity of Consent, Nina Raine’s much better 2017 play on the same subject."

"Miriam Buether’s design – with its hefty mahogany furniture and towering stacks of case files – makes a solid, conventional setting. But Martin’s production is caught slightly awkwardly between realism and expressionistic flourish."

"omer is always compelling, as she fights to cling on to her belief in justice, the life she’s built and her sense of self. If the play, for all its conviction, sheds little new light on an egregious – and worsening – issue, she blazes."

i News
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The Burnt City (2022)

★★★

"Punchdrunk are back – but have lost a little of their magic"

"The company’s latest show drawing on Greek myth is one of the hottest tickets at present – but it doesn’t quite live up to the hype"

"The phenomenal sets, designed by company founder Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns, are like cinematic soundstages, hyperreal and shimmeringly fantastical. And there are flashes of brilliance in the performance, co-created and directed by Barrett and choreographer Maxine Doyle.

"But for a piece inspired by classical tragedy – specifically, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Euripides’ Hecuba – there’s a surprising absence of dramatic impact, and a lot that is confusing, ponderous or frustrating."

i News
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Scandaltown (2022)

★★

"A biting satire? You can find sharper discourse on Twitter"

"In current times, Mike Bartlett’s Restoration-style political romp ought to go off like a rocket, but the characters aren’t nearly big or vivid enough to make it sparkle"

"The only time O’Riordan’s staging, on a toy-theatre set by the collective Good Teeth, ever feels properly energised in when [Rachael] Stirling appears, lounging and purring in a gold lamé pantsuit or gliding, sleek as a shark, in a satin negligee (the eccentric costumes, part glitz, part charity shop upcycle, are by Kinnetia Isidore). But mostly, this is a toothless disappointment."

i News
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The 47th (2022)

★★★

"Bertie Carvel is magnificently monstrous – but this Trump satire falls flat"

"Carvel steals the show with his uncanny turn as the orange political atrocity, but this lightweight story is lacking in meat"

"Carvel’s turn is uncanny, from the corpulent bulk and tiny flapping hands to the pouty, rubbery beige lips, the avaricious, lizard-like gaze and ludicrous swirl of nicotine-yellow hair. Yet in this dystopian vision of the near future – it imagines Trump trying to get back into power in the next presidential race – where’s the meat? The plot is a grotesque soap opera, all greasy poles and dirty deals; as America descends into anarchy, a bug-eyed, rebel-yelling craziness takes hold in scenes that, like the 2021 Capitol riot, feature a cavorting, horned shaman, and wouldn’t look out of place in The Purge."

i News
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To Kill A Mockingbird (2022)

★★★★

"Rafe Spall plays the hero in a tremendous reimagining"

"Aaron Sorkin’s searing adaptation improves on Harper Lee’s novel where it matters the most"

"Most significantly, Sorkin expands the roles of African Americans Tom Robinson (Jude Owusu), the field hand falsely accused of rape, and Calpurnia (Pamela Nomvete), the Finches’ housekeeper.

Both actors are magnificent, challenging Spall’s warm, magnetic Atticus on his naive faith in his neighbours’ inherent goodness, and confronting the appalling reality with pain, rage and a control born of long, terrible endurance. Owusu’s tense, anguished testimony and Nomvete’s outraged agony, poured into a silent scream, are searingly memorable."

i News
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Straight Line Crazy (2022)

★★

"Ralph Fiennes shines – but this lumpen play is, frankly, a bit boring"

"David Hare’s New York-set polemic on gentrification has a great true story to work with – but it is heavy on the declamatory and light on actual drama"

"Directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Ralph Fiennes – both regular Hare collaborators – it is heavy on the declamatory and the dialectic, light on actual drama."

"Hare’s treatment of the few black characters – black and Hispanic New Yorkers were disproportionately affected by Moses’s influence – is especially cursory. For all Fiennes’s energy, the whole thing feels inert: a two-dimensional interplay of underdeveloped ideas."

i News
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The Human Voice (2022)

★★

"Ruth Wilson and Ivo van Hove fail to connect in a clichéd show"

"Ruth Wilson’s acting masterclass can’t save this sexist production of Jean Cocteau’s drama at the end of a phone."

"Van Hove gives it an explicitly tragic conclusion that, thanks to the narrative’s flimsiness, doesn’t feel earned."

i News
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Cock (2022)

★★★★

"Jonathan Bailey and Taron Egerton draw blood in a shrewd, savage revival"

"Jade Anouka combines assertiveness with longing in Marianne Elliott’s elegant revamp of Mike Bartlett’s sexual identity drama"

"Marianne Elliott’s shrewd production shifts its focus away from a gay/straight binary, with bisexuality the only rather hazily imagined alternative, and towards a broader consideration of how we define and evaluate ourselves in relation to whom we choose to love."

"The play brutally exposes the lies and compromises we’re prepared to swallow to get what we think we need. Elegantly presented and very funny, it no longer quite lands a knock-out blow – but it still draws blood."

i News
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The Book of Dust (2021)

★★★

"Disappointing daemons and a surprisingly pedestrian adventure"

"Lavery does her best to hack through the dense thicket of plot, but Creasey’s likeable Malcolm is lumbered with gobs of exposition that sap dramatic tension. Nor is the production’s visual language as thrilling as hoped."

"Bob Crowley’s sets and Luke Halls’s video give the teeming rain and bucolic backdrops a flavour of William Blake’s prints, and the canoe glides elegantly enough."

"Grown-ups are not to be trusted; Malcolm and Alice, adolescent surrogate parents to the vulnerable Lyra, are a poignant symbol of hope. There’s a nagging sense that the piece is groping for a significance and theatrical magic that stubbornly elude it. But it still has its ripples of inky glitter."

i News
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The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2021)

"A potent enchantment"

"Glittering with dark wonder, this National Theatre staging of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel is a bewitching shapeshifter."

i News
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A Christmas Carol - A Ghost Story (2021)

★★★

"Mark Gatiss’s spooky new take is both horrific and hammy"

"Nicholas Farrell’s acerbically funny Scrooge and Gatiss’s ghostly Jacob Marley are a Dickens double-act to savour in this fun show with magical special effects."

i News
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Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical (2021)

★★★★

"Arinzé Kene mesmerises in an exhilarating tribute to a legend"

"Lee Hall’s book grapples with turbulent politics, Marley’s complex personal life and his Rastafarian faith. There’s a seriousness here, a real attempt to honour Marley’s legacy."

"Julene Robinson as his mother and Shanay Holmes as singer and beauty queen Cindy Breakspeare, his lover, are powerful presences."

i News
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Back to the Future (2021)

★★★

"An eye-popping Gen X nostalgia trip...
The vibe is determinedly feelgood in this dazzling production full of 80s hits."

"The show, by Zemeckis’ co-writer Bob Gale, with songs by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, may well delight a whole new young audience and certainly packs enough eye-popping spectacle and gigawatt energy. But where it really fires on all cylinders is as a Gen X nostalgia trip. "

i News
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& Juliet (2019)

★★★

"Max Martin’s musical & Juliet is bright, brash and a gazillion times camper than Christmas"

"For all its iconoclastic swagger, this show is neither edgy, nor cool. It is, though, rambunctious fun"

"... a jukebox musical with the broad humour and fairy tale sentiment of a pantomime, plus a generous dash of The X Factor in its bombastic parade of numbers made famous by the likes of Britney Spears, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry and the Backstreet Boys. For all its iconoclastic swagger, in truth the show is neither edgy, nor cool. It is, though, rambunctious fun, with a storming star performance by Miriam-Teak Lee that joyously celebrates young women everywhere – or, as one of the hyper-energised supporting players puts it, 'female empowerment – sick!'"

i News
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Lungs (2019)

"Claire Foy and Matt Smith elevate Duncan Macmillan's rather toothless parenting drama"

“Deluxe casting and slick delivery. Claire Foy and Matt Smith elevate Duncan Macmillan's rather toothless parenting drama.”

“There’s a level of skill and intelligence to its fraught, circuitous exchanges that hints at the dazzling writer Macmillan has become. Despite fine performances from its two stars in a neat, deft production by Matthew Warchus, however, it’s a bland, self-regarding affair that feels decidedly longer than its 80-minute duration. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion may be keeping environmental issues in the headlines, but a similar sense of urgency is scarce here: beneath a faint greenwash of larger ideas, the piece is far more preoccupied with domestic politics. And like a mewling infant yet to cut its milk teeth, it lacks bite.”

“Ultimately, this is an unremarkable play that has been lavished with luxury casting – and while there’s nothing uniquely demanding about these roles, it’s Smith and Foy that make it worthwhile. Plenty of new and prospective parents will probably nod along with the drama’s anxieties and wryly humorous observations. And, no argument: it’s slickly delivered.”

The Arts Desk
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Hole (2018)

★★★

‘Ellie Kendrick’s flawed but ferocious debut play reverberates with feminist rage’

‘Rage and frustration blaze throughout this play – but so does hope. It’s a riotous, ragged, wild thing with the glimmer of magnificence among its flailing and its flaws.’

The Stage
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📷 Main photo: Critics.- Sam Marlowe

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